With food price increases outstripping South Africa’s official inflation rate, and hunger and malnutrition in Cape Town at worrying levels, the city urgently needs to develop a food security strategy that goes beyond a focus on production.

The fact that the country is nationally food secure and has a well-developed agricultural sector puts into question the prevailing view that food security is fundamentally an issue of improving rural food production, and that this will automatically resolve escalating food needs in urban centres.

South Africa’s population is already more than 60 percent urbanised and is expected to reach 80 percent by mid-century. Meeting the food security needs of the country’s population is – and will be – an increasingly urban challenge.

With a population approaching 4 million, Cape Town has a particularly rapid annual growth rate of 3.2 percent. Migration accounts for about 41 percent of this growth and natural increase the rest.

Addressing food insecurity in cities like Cape Town is essential, not simply because access to food is a constitutional right, but also because access to adequate, nutritious, hygienic and culturally important food can assist the city’s developmental aims.

The cumulative impact of many undernourished individuals places significant limitations on the economic and social development of the city. Making the food system work for the poor can therefore have significant positive impacts on the economy, employment, environmental sustainability and health costs.

The UCT-based African Food Security Urban Network, which aims to address the challenges associated with rising poverty and food insecurity in Africa’s cities, found very high food insecurity in the three Cape Town areas that it researched.

In both Philippi and Khayelitsha, less than 10 percent of households were food secure. Even in Ocean View, the better-off of the areas, only 31 percent of households were food secure. Dietary diversity was also poor.

Given the South African tradition of eating samp and beans as a meal, it was surprising that the proportion of households eating foods made with beans, lentils, peas and other forms of non-animal derived protein was very low. These are generally low-cost, high-protein foods. Among the possible reasons for this finding is the time that it takes to cook them, which in the context of high-energy costs and long commutes to work makes these foods less viable.

The proportion of households consuming fish was also lower than expected (only 16 percent) despite the fisheries history of Ocean View.

Very little fresh fish is consumed; most comes in the form of canned fish, particularly pilchards, which are sold extensively in retail outlets in low-income areas.

Some 88 percent of households stated that they had gone without food in the previous six months due to unaffordability, while 44 percent had gone without once a week or more. More than 70 percent had not had enough food within the household within the previous year.

There are distinct differences in levels of food security during the year with peaks and troughs in levels of food security, with January being the hardest month for most. AFSUN’s (the writers of this article) findings reinforce the fact that, in the urban setting, there are multiple causes of food insecurity.

There is also a range of stakeholders playing a role in the urban food system. As a result, the solution to food insecurity cannot simply be linked to local and national policy interventions. The findings on food sources, in particular, suggest a failure in the current food market. The state and private sector will need to work together to address some of the weaknesses of the current food distribution and sales systems. The informal food economy is a vitally important means for people to access food. In policy terms, enhancement of the informal market as a means of food supply is vital.

Furthermore, considerable strain is being placed on community resources as households borrow and share food. While this suggests strong social capital in the poor areas of the city, it also points to a failure of the market and of formal social safety nets.

Engagement among NGOs, civil society and the state should be encouraged to put in place safety nets that neither create dependency nor destroy existing social safety nets that perpetuate community relations. The city must consider the geography of the urban food system, in particular planning and zoning regulations regarding the location of both formal and informal retail within low-income areas.

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